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Forever young

Fresh faces, eternal themes make Rohmer's work timeless

NEW YORK — Eric Rohmer is being honored at this year’s Venice Intl. Film Festival for his lifetime achievement in the cinema. For some of us cinephiles, this gesture of formal recognition is eminently well deserved for an 81-year-old director with a sparkling career that spans more than a half-century.

“Sparkling” at least partly because of Rohmer’s remarkably persistent preoccupation with youthful subjects, that is to say with the elective affinities of young women either as they confront competing males, or as they compete with other women for the same male. Despite the apparent repetitiousness of the narrative pattern, Rohmer’s films have been consistently subtle, sophisticated and civilized entertainment.

There is in all of Rohmer’s films also much talk, perhaps too much for some tastes. A detective played by Gene Hackman in Arthur Penn’s “Night Moves” (1975) complained that watching a Rohmer film was like watching paint dry. Rohmer himself quoted 12th-century writer Chretien de Troyes in a prescript to “Pauline at the Beach” (1983): “He who talks too much digs his own grave.”

Hence the compulsive conversations in Rohmer’s romances as often defeat the objectives of the speaker as advance them.

How then does Rohmer achieve the necessary variety in his 22 feature films, very slowly and deliberately prepared from 1959 to the present? Partly by casting fresh faces in the leads as often as possible, partly by shifting locales continuously, often in search of new cuisine. Each film thus becomes a separate adventure.

Still, the fact that even in his 60s, 70s and 80s, Rohmer continues to be fascinated by the emotional adventures of young women is strange and suspicious enough, but that this same filmmaker should be particularly fascinated by young women who can talk a blue streak is even more extraordinary. In casting and writing his characters, Rohmer depends a great deal on research and a tape recorder. His interviews with chosen actresses may last weeks and months, and his research includes such details as their clothes and coiffures.

Rohmer’s “cinematic” style is remarkably plain by most standards. His montage effects are nonexistent, his camera movements functional and unobtrusive. He frankly credits his extensive work in television with teaching him the virtues of camera stillness.

Yet, he is not a minimalist. There is the lushness of language, and the sensuousness of articulate characters with a full complement of photogenic attributes. There is no background music to evoke a beautiful inner life, only the source music from onscreen pianos and record players. There are no expressionist flurries of overhead shots and climactic slow motion. There is no need, for with Rohmer it is not a question of “cherchez la femme,” but “cherchez la jeune fille.”

It is a master of personal taste that I prefer “My Night at Maud’s” (1969) to “La Collectionneuse” (1967), “Pauline at the Beach” (1982) to “Le Beau Mariage” (1981), “Claire’s Knee” (1970) to “Chloe in the Afternoon” (1972), “Boyfriends and Girlfriends” (1987) to “Summer” (1985), and “A Tale of Springtime” (1989) to “A Tale of Winter” (1985). Yet, in the Rohmer oeuvre there are no two or three masterpieces that tower over the rest of his efforts. His films, like the novels of Honore de Balzac and Anthony Trollope, are a continuous stream of narrative art with crests and shallows here and there, but no dry gulches anywhere.

As I have indicated, film purists complain about the excessive talk in a supposedly visual medium. I can understand the objection, but I don’t accept it for Rohmer. I have always gotten the same kind of kick from Rohmer’s films as I have from those of F.W. Murnau (1888-1931), Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) and Jean Renoir (1894-1979). From Murnau, Rohmer has absorbed the German master’s stylistic rigor and moral implacability; from Hitchcock, the stressful and choice-filled psychology of his characters; and from Renoir, the casual sensuousness and life-affirming exuberance of his canvases.

Rohmer was born Jean-Marie Maurice Scherer on April 4, 1920, in Nancy, France. His adopted movie name was a composite of a director he admired, Eric Von Stroheim, and a pulp writer, Sax Rohmer. He taught literature at a provincial high school for eight years before beginning to write about films, first in 1950 with the short-lived La Gazette du Cinema, a publication he founded with Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, who followed him to Cahiers du Cinema, along with Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut.

These five critics formed the nucleus of the Nouvelle Vague in French filmmaking, though Rohmer, who served as editor in chief from 1957 to 1963, was the last to receive international recognition with “Ma Nuit Chez Maud” in 1969.

Since then he has won special awards at many film festivals, and is co-author with Chabrol of “Hitchcock,” the first perceptive study of the master of cinematic suspense.

New York Observer film critic Andrew Sarris is the author of such works as “Confessions of a Cultist” and the seminal “The American Cinema.”

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